San Dieguito school district no longer accepts written public comment

The SDUHSD board met virtually on Feb. 25.
(Karen Billing)

The San Dieguito Union High School District is facing questions about how it is handling public comment, including its recent decision to no longer accept written public comments and an incident when several speakers were cut off mid-comment during a special board meeting.

On Feb. 25, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of San Diego and Imperial Counties wrote a letter to the board and superintendent with concerns that they are unlawfully restricting public comment.

“We write to remind you that a school board may not silence community members engaged in lawful public comment simply because the board dislikes their message,” wrote Melissa Deleon, an equity staff attorney with the ACLU. “If the board is limiting access to public meetings and restricting comments based on the viewpoint expressed, it is violating its own bylaws, the Brown Act, and the First Amendment, and must immediately stop.”

SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley addressed the issue at the Feb. 25 board meeting, sharing that he believes the board’s protocol is fair and is in compliance with the Brown Act.

“Our district, like many districts when this pandemic began, came up with ways to allow as much public comment as possible,” said Haley.

With the move to virtual board meetings in April 2020, the district began accepting written comments in May, posting all that were received on the website for the public to view. The practice was halted before the Feb. 1 board meeting without any prior board discussion.

One phenomenon of virtual meetings has been much more public participation and Haley said many organizations have now re-evaluated the written comment protocol as it has become burdensome for staff to manage and it is not reflective of the spirit of the Brown Act, which is for public access and participation in meetings.

“Public comments in written form are not required by the Brown Act,” Haley said.

Neighboring Solana Beach School District accepts written public comments and they are read into the record at the meeting but they are not posted. Poway Unified is no longer reading written public comments aloud during meetings but is still accepting them for board members to read.

At times, San Dieguito has received thousands of comments on various agenda items—a special board meeting in May featured 87 pages of written comments. Haley said another concern about written comments was that many were anonymous and there was no way to know if someone had submitted multiple times using different email addresses.

For parents, the posted comments became a useful public forum.

“I think it’s nice to read what the community thinks and sometimes there is great insight even in comments and views that are different from our own,” parent Cynthia Rajsbaum said.

Rajsbaum was questioning the absence of written comments on Feb. 1 when she was abruptly cut off by SDUHSD President Mo Muir. The following speaker Michele Macosky also inquired about the elimination of written comments and was cut off.

“I was not asked if I had anything further to say in my allotted time that was within the scope of the agenda topic as interpreted by Trustee Muir. I was denied my time to speak, and I had various different things to say, but did not get to say them because no one took the time to clarify the scope of the agenda topic,” Macosky later wrote in an email. “It felt very disrespectful and made me feel like the board did not value hearing what I had to say.”

After the two women were cut off before him, speaker Matthew Davis stated: “I’m really concerned about the suppression that is going on right now.”

Later in the meeting, Muir did explain that in a special board meeting there is no non-agenda public comment allowed but no warning was given to speakers who veered off-topic while they were speaking. The letter from the ACLU referenced the incident, with concern that the board may be intimidating the community from providing public comment that may express dissent.

Haley said as board president, Muir is chair of the meeting and it is at her discretion to control the meeting. At the following Feb. 25 meeting, rather than cut anyone off, she informed several speakers that their comments were not on topic, giving them a choice to re-route their comment or drop.

During these virtual board meetings, San Dieguito has also adjusted its public comment protocol by giving the public an opportunity to submit a request to address the board and then randomly selecting 10 speakers to speak for two minutes, not exceeding a 20-minute time limit on an agenda item. This practice has also frustrated some parents as not everyone gets a chance to weigh in — at the Feb. 25 meeting, one item had 26 requests to speak.

Per the Brown Act, organizations may adopt reasonable regulations for public comment periods, including regulations limiting the total amount of time. As the ACLU noted, it may not however prohibit public criticism.

The 20-minute time limit on public comment is practiced by other districts, like neighboring Del Mar Union and Solana Beach School Districts. At times when the number of public comments has exceeded 20 minutes, the boards have voted to extend the comment period. (A virtual meeting on the Del Mar Heights rebuild in May 2020 included three hours of public comment.)

Past San Dieguito boards have also voted to exceed the 20-minute time limit on occasion. Haley said there are challenges as the board and staff have only so much available time that they can meet in public to conduct its business. During the past months as the board has dealt with complex reopening issues, meetings have run six to seven hours—one meeting went so long it had to be held over to another day.

At the Feb. 25 meeting when discussing the topic of public comment, it was nearing 10 p.m. and the board had been going for over four and half hours.

Haley said the district respects the rights of the public to participate in meetings and board members said they had no concerns with the current public comment protocol, other than SDUHSD Vice President Melisse Mossy saying she wished she could see people’s faces when they speak from home.

“I feel it’s most productive the way we’re doing it now,” Muir said. “On the other hand with the written comments when we had them it seems like more people were able to speak, that’s the only problem.”

While they may no longer be posted, SDUHSD Trustee Katrina Young said people are always encouraged to email their comments to the board.